A Backdoor Friendship with Harper Lee

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills, (Penguin), 288 pages

“In the summer of 2005, I was at Burger King with Harper Lee.”

That’s the sentence that opens Marja Mills’ memoir about her time spent in Monroeville, Alabama, with Harper Lee (Nelle, actually—the last E is silent), her older sister Alice, and their friends. It sets the tone and pace for the rest of the book. If you’re looking for a literary biography, you’ll be deeply disappointed. But if you want to vicariously meet Lee in a less literary, more human way, you’ll appreciate The Mockingbird Next Door.

Mills had the good luck of being the one reporter the Lee sisters chose to open up to—at least as much as they ever opened up. From the beginning, Mills made it clear that she would honor their judgement about what would be on and off the record. If they didn’t want a story told, she wouldn’t tell it. Because Mills was facing a health crisis and couldn’t work, she was able to spend a good bit of time with the Lee sisters, even renting the house next door for over a year, going on fast-food coffee runs, jaunts to feed the ducks at a small, local pond, and listening to the sisters’ stories.

Ultimately, this book is more oral history of a particular place and time in Alabama than it is a a book about Lee the author. Mills has a voracious appetite for stories, and the Lees seem eager to share their knowledge of local history—cautious, but nonetheless eager.

The portrait of the sisters that Mills paints is quirky and affectionate. They joke about storing books in their unused pellet stove when they ran out of book shelves. Their regard for each other is constant. While Alice lived year-round in Monroeville, Nelle divided her time between their hometown and New York City. The sisters, both hard of hearing, communicated by fax when separated—and when in New York, Nelle always faxed the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle to her sister at home in rural Alabama.

This is a gentle book, imbued with respect and love for its subjects. If you can give yourself over to the books’ slow pace and its focus on small pleasures, you’ll be deeply rewarded.

**I received a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.**

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